Springing Forth

Springing Forth

University Horticulturalist Keeps Campus in Bloom

It’s January — a week before a major ice storm is about to hit Omaha — and Jessica Heller, Creighton University’s landscape supervisor, is already talking about spring flowers. To get campus in full bloom by May commencement, Creighton starts early.

“The annuals we plant, we take a gamble every year and plant them 10 days to two weeks before we really should, because if we don’t, we won’t really have the plants in before spring commencement,” Heller says.

Landscaping a 140-acre campus is a major team effort. Heller oversees a 10-member crew, and brings in a few additional workers seasonally.

Heller studied botany, and honed her horticulture techniques in Omaha with a post-graduate internship at Lauritzen Gardens and by spending undergraduate summers at Mulhall’s, a nursery, landscaping and garden center. She has worked at Creighton since 2004.

One challenge of landscaping an urban campus is working with a lack of open green spaces. Sometimes trees are closer together than normal to accommodate parking regulations. With Omaha’s climate, Heller also has to think how the space will work with snow removal. But Creighton has found a way to work with its smaller footprint, as evidenced by the picturesque Jesuit Gardens.

“We desire to have this very comforting park-like setting, lots of space, lots of green, that’s kind of an escape,” Heller says.

Through Tree Campus USA, a program started in 2008 by the Arbor Day Foundation, Heller has been able to focus on tree protection and specific guidelines for new projects. Creighton was an inaugural member of the program, which recognizes colleges and universities that produce healthy trees and engage students in the process. In February, Creighton received its ninth straight Tree Campus USA designation.

Creighton is home to more than 1,000 trees and 100 different species across campus.

Through an affiliation with the Nebraska statewide arboretum, Creighton also serves as a demonstration site for working with native plants.

“The arboretum brings the community to campus for tours, so that other people can visit and hear about the things we do here,” Heller says.

When it comes to gardening, Heller keeps it simple, taking a native and natural approach.

“Gardening is a very sensory-intense thing. It’s not just standing back and observing; you really have to throw yourself into it.”